Dispatch

Welcome to the Department of Morale Affairs

Belly dancers, billboards, and Egypt's military propaganda machine.

CAIRO — "We will say yes; we will say yes twice," sings one of Egypt's most famous belly dancers, as she seductively sashays across the television screen. Clad in an Egyptian flag dress, Sama el-Masry outlines the finer points of the country's new constitution, which Egyptians voted on in a referendum on Tuesday, Jan. 14.

In case one happens to be focusing on gyrating hips and misses any of these finer points, no matter; the commercial is broadcast every 15 minutes on the celebrity's new TV channel. And it's just one example of how Egypt's military, business, and media elite have banded together to drum up support for the draft charter -- and bolster the new military-backed political order in Cairo.

Egypt's generals suspended the previous constitution, which was approved during the presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi, when they overthrew the Islamist president in July 2013. Since then, the interim government has waged a bloody crackdown on the Brotherhood's supporters, leaving hundreds dead and thousands in jail. It has also declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, blaming it for the spike in terrorist attacks that have wracked the country in recent months.

The new government has not so subtly suggested that a high turnout and an overwhelming yes vote would confer the country's stamp of approval on Army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's political road map, the next marker being elections. Sisi said over the weekend that he would run for president only if there were a popular demand for his candidacy. So, this time, he's leaving nothing to chance.

That's where the Department of Morale Affairs comes in. The military's propaganda agency -- responsible for managing the Egyptian Army's public image and boosting goodwill toward troops -- is waging a nonstop war on the airwaves, recently releasing a series of short music videos that contain thinly veiled calls for a "yes" vote.

"Change is in your hands; come on, continue your revolution," sings an angelic children's choir in one video, referencing the June 30 protests against Morsi that ushered in July's coup. "This is the most important step to start the road."

The song, which is also performed by a women's choir and a chorus of men in other videos, was written by composer Amr Mostafa, famous for claiming that the 2011 uprising against Mubarak was "photoshopped' and instigated by Vodafone, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola.

The use of children to deliver a pro-military message is particularly frequent. In another video, Egyptian youth -- dressed in military uniforms -- parade around the pyramids and Cairo's Unknown Soldier Memorial. "Egypt needs all hands united," they sing. "A unity as strong as steel."

But unity's a tough sell in Egypt these days. The circumstances in which the new constitution was written were contentious, though it has received some praise from human rights groups for improving the rights of women and tempering the religious language in the charter written under Morsi. The draft constitution calls for "the protection of women against all forms of violence," while the 2012 constitution only mentioned women in the context of the family. The new constitution still refers to Islamic law as the main source of legislation, but it excised a controversial article that called for a stricter interpretation of sharia and explicitly forbids the formation of political parties "on the basis of religion."

But if there's any group that stands to really gain from approval of the new constitution, it's the military. A yes vote would cement the military's prerogatives in post-Morsi Egypt. If ratified, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a body composed of the country's 21 top generals, will have the power to approve who is appointed defense minister for the next president's first two terms in office. Military trials for civilians would be permitted, and the armed forces budget would remain a secret from all but the military-dominated National Defense Council.

"[The articles of the constitution] have walled the military off from any effective civilian oversight," said Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian military and a recently retired professor of national security affairs at the U.S.-based Naval Postgraduate School.

When Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, the Department of Morale Affairs countered, stepping up its production of pro-military material. Its aim was to airbrush the military's image after a difficult transition year after dictator Hosni Mubarak's fall. One of the first videos it produced was a 30-minute documentary portraying Sisi as a devout defense minister. Since the military government seized power, it has fanned the flames of a growing cult of personality around Sisi. It's not unusual in Cairo to find the Army chief's face on cupcakes, chocolates, jewelry, even pajama tops. His portrait regularly covers the front pages of newspapers, while supporters glowingly compare him to former military presidents Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser.

"It's one of the most important departments of the military and closely tied to military investigations department," said a former officer with ties to the film industry. The department, little known before the 2011 revolution, relies on film school students conscripted into the Army, he said.

But while the Department of Morale Affairs might be enjoying its increased profile, it also benefits from multimillion-dollar campaigns run by Egypt's businessmen, whose financial and political interests have propelled them to join in the propaganda party.

Even before the draft of the constitution was completed, several pro-government businessmen launched a massive campaign calling for a yes vote, billboards for which plaster the streets of Cairo. For many, it's déjà vu all over again: Tarek Nour, who runs the country's largest advertising company, was also behind billboards for Mubarak's 2005 presidential campaign. This time around it's the new constitution.

Business tycoon and politician Naguib Sawiris and his Free Egyptians Party have also poured millions of dollars into print and TV commercials. Sawiris -- whose family fortune grew from military contracts in the 1970s, according to Springborg -- admitted last year to supporting the Tamarod campaign that organized protests calling for Morsi's ouster.

"Our ads are trying to tell the people to continue your revolution; please go out again," Free Egyptians spokesperson Shehab Wagih said.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the silence is deafening. Not a single column in Egypt's mainstream newspapers called for a no vote or a boycott of the referendum -- a stark contrast to the fierce debates that characterized the vote over the 2012 constitution. In fact, even campaigning for a no vote could land you in jail: At least six members of the moderately Islamist Strong Egypt Party, which tentatively supported the military's ouster of Morsi, were arrested for attempting to hang posters asking Egyptians to vote down the new constitution.

At the press conference for the High Elections Commission, the body that runs polls in Egypt, on Monday, Jan. 13, the day before the vote, officials dodged questions about the arrests, saying it wasn't in their remit to comment.

Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the founder of the Strong Egypt Party, said his group would boycott the election. In doing so, they joined the Morsi supporters and the Brotherhood-led "Anti-Coup Alliance," which in a Jan. 13 statement denounced the "sham referendum held by coup leaders on the Egyptians' blood."

"The fact that there is no visible campaign for ‘no' now is telling," human rights lawyer Ragia Omran said. "There are people who want to say no; people should be allowed to say their opinions."

Of course, there's little room for dissent in the halls of the Department of Morale Affairs. As Masry croons in her tricolored dress, "Our position is strong and good, and whoever is going to vote no, tell him, ‘Get out of our country.'" 

MAHMOUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Divorce Istanbul-Style

Why Turkey's nasty Gulen-Erdogan fight is making for some strange bedfellows.

ISTANBUL — How quickly Turkey has turned.

Last August, after five years of hearings and indictments that ran into the thousands of pages, a Turkish court convicted more than 250 people of conspiring to topple the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Ergenekon trial, as it was called -- named after a shadowy group believed to be part of Turkey's so-called deep state -- was seen as an attempt by Erdogan to undermine his main opponent, the secular military. And it appeared to have served its purpose: The day after the convictions, Yalcin Akdogan, one of the prime minister's leading advisors, praised the verdict as "the greatest legal settling of accounts in the history of the republic."

Nearly five months later, Akdogan reversed course. Many of the officers sentenced in the Ergenekon case had actually been framed, he wrote in a December column in the Star newspaper. The real culprit, he suggested, was the Gulen movement, a powerful Islamic order suspected of setting up a large fiefdom inside the Turkish police and judiciary. "Everybody knows that those who have plotted against their own country's national army … could not have acted for the good of this country," Akdogan wrote.

Akdogan's stunning U-turn has heralded a policy shift for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a whole. In the weeks that have followed, the ruling party has made it abundantly clear that it is willing to give Ergenekon and a separate coup case, Sledgehammer, another look. A deputy chairman of the AKP's parliamentary group has suggested that the government could make "new legal arrangements" to enable retrials. On Jan. 5, Erdogan himself announced he would be "favorably disposed" to such a solution.

While the prime minister's messy divorce from the Gulen movement seems to have reached the point of no return, it had been a marriage of convenience from the very beginning. Until the AKP's election victory in 2002 -- the first of its three consecutive wins at the polls -- the Gulenists had been wary of aligning themselves with a single political outfit. Their movement had previously focused on education, philanthropy, Islamic proselytization, and unquestioning loyalty to Fethullah Gulen, the man who founded the group.

In Erdogan's conservative, mildly Islamist party, however, the Gulenists found a partner with whom they could do business. The movement supplied the AKP with the cadres needed to manage state institutions, as well as a supportive media, including the country's biggest newspaper, Zaman. The government reciprocated by giving Gulenist companies, schools, and charities access to opportunities at home and abroad. Through the Ergenekon trials, the two worked side by side to bring the army -- a once invincible secularist force and the author of four coups since 1960 -- to heel.

Over the past two years, however, the glue binding Erdogan and the movement has started to weaken. Miffed by his choice of a close ally as intelligence chief, his increasingly authoritarian tilt, and his handling of last summer's Gezi Park protests, the Gulenists have grown increasingly critical of the prime minister. Erdogan responded by threatening to shut down a network of prep schools that constitute one of the Gulenists' main financial lifelines, further infuriating the movement.

Erdogan's about-face on the coup trials marked his latest break with the Gulen movement, whose cadres spearheaded the prosecution. It is a stunning reversal: In 2008, the prime minister proclaimed himself "Ergenekon's prosecutor," and he had previously backed almost all the police officials and prosecutors involved in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases. The trials, he insisted, would help expose Turkey's deep state -- the nexus between the army, the intelligence community, and the secularist establishment.

The Turkish judiciary, Erdogan had argued, was entirely independent from political pressure. And he kept up that argument -- right until that same judiciary came after him.

On Dec. 17, a massive corruption investigation shook Erdogan's government to its core. Police arrested dozens of people with ties to the government, including several powerful businessmen, the sons of three ministers, and the chief executive of a state bank -- who had reportedly stashed $4.5 million in shoeboxes inside his home. On Dec. 25, the three cabinet members implicated in the scandal stepped down, with one of them urging Erdogan to follow suit. The same day, news leaked of a separate graft probe targeting yet more officials and businessmen, including Erdogan's own son, Bilal.

It didn't take long for the prime minister, like many in Turkey, to see the hand of the Gulenists at work. He has responded with a snowballing purge of the police and bureaucracy. Over the past three weeks, the government has laid off or reassigned almost 2,000 police officials, including 350 in a sweeping overnight operation on Jan. 6. A law to give the government greater control over judicial appointments -- sure to earn Turkey new reprimands from the European Union -- is in the works.

The government has also done everything in its power to throw a wrench in the ongoing corruption investigation. One leading prosecutor, Muammer Akkas, has been removed from the case. Newly appointed police officials, Akkas alleged, refused to carry out arrest warrants issued for 41 suspects.

Erdogan and his ministers are now pulling no punches in their political war against the Gulenists, likening the movement to a "gang," a "dark force," and a "parallel state." But as the prime minister moves to wash his hands of the coup trials, he must contend with an awkward question: Why didn't he react before the corruption probe threatened his grip on power?

Dani Rodrik -- a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, whose father-in-law, a former general, was imprisoned in the coup trials -- has been a longtime critic of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases. "It is obvious to all that the procedures in these trials make them stink to high hell," he says.

Rodrik notes that the trials gave Erdogan the cover he needed to weaken the military but have since outlived their purpose. "Erdogan was never the key actor in these trials," says Rodrik. "[But] he was happy to go along with them because they helped him break the back of the [army] and consolidate power."

Yasar Yakis, a former AKP foreign minister, agrees that the corruption probe has been "instrumental" in Erdogan's decision to revisit the coup cases. "The Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials were mostly opened on the basis of information provided by the Gulen movement people," Yakis argues. "Now that they found other things to disclose, there is a general feeling that they may have collected the evidence to incriminate the Sledgehammer people and the others for the wrong reasons."

This has made for some strange bedfellows. By distancing himself from the trials and the Gulenists, Erdogan has begun making common cause with the military. On Jan. 2, the Turkish General Staff seized on the prime minister's comments to file a criminal complaint claiming that evidence in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations had been forged. The army's move has made it clear just how much the Turkish chessboard has changed over the past several months. Suddenly, Erdogan is being aided by an increasingly pliant army to take on his political opponents.

But some political experts warn that this is a risky setup for Erdogan. His party is losing popularity at home -- its support slipped to 42 percent in a recent poll, and five MPs have resigned in protest at the purge of the police and judiciary -- and Erdogan has yet to contain the corruption crisis. His decision to revisit the coup trials may earn him the army's support against the Gulenists, says Kadri Gursel, an Istanbul-based columnist for Al-Monitor and Milliyet, "but it will destroy his government's moral authority."

The other risk is that Erdogan -- desperate for allies and unable to rein in the corruption probe -- may embolden the army to slink back into the political arena. "What the army will do if the situation worsens and the crisis deepens is a big question," Gursel says.

Erdogan, like a drowning man, "may clutch at a snake," he adds, citing a Turkish proverb. In the English version, of course, it's not a "snake" but a "straw." That may be, says Gursel, except that straws do not bite.

Photo: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images